Ebola puts Obama's midterm campaign strategy on hold

With fears about Ebola spreading in the United States, President Barack Obama has begun to engage directly in addressing the issue.

On Wednesday, Obama announced that he would postpone a trip to Connecticut and New Jersey where he was scheduled to campaign on behalf of Democratic candidates and to attend a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee event. Later that evening, the White House confirmed that another campaign-related trip scheduled for Thursday would also be put on hold indefinitely.

Obama was set to deliver a speech in Rhode Island, where the Democratic candidate maintains only a consistently slim lead over his Republican challenger, and to attend a fundraiser for Democrats on Long Island. The Associated Press reported that the president would instead remain in Washington to monitor the government’s response to this health crisis.

The White House revealed on Thursday that the president is set to resume his midterm campaign strategy on Sunday when he is scheduled to travel to Illinois to campaign in support of embattled Gov. Pat Quinn, barring any unforeseen developments in the effort to contain Ebola.

As Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere reported on Wednesday, the president’s moves are as calculated a political maneuver as his trips to the Northeast for campaign-related events would have been.

“Any time Obama is campaigning or on vacation when something big goes wrong — from a downed plane to race riots — aides scoff at the idea that he is not focusing on his day job,” Dovere reported. The fact that Obama is rearranging his schedule to address the Ebola crisis is, implicitly, an admission that his White House is taking this episode seriously.

Optics, which Obama and his staff dismiss as never being much on their minds, always means a lot to this White House. Aides in the past have pointed out that any abrupt changes to Obama’s schedule have the potential to convey more of a crisis than may exist.

But facing the risk of embarrassing juxtapositions of dying health care workers while Obama was out campaigning, that’s exactly what they did.

But those who suggest that the president has eschewed optics in order to soberly and carefully address this problem must contend with Obama’s own comments on Wednesday. Speaking to reporters in the White House during a meeting of his Cabinet agencies, Obama stressed that the Ebola crisis is no crisis at all and that he was so confident that the nation’s medical professionals can contain the hemorrhagic fever that he put himself at risk.

“I shook hands with, hugged, and kissed, not the doctors, but a couple of the nurses at Emory because of the valiant work that they did,” Obama said. “In treating one of the patients, they followed the protocols, they knew what they were doing, and I felt perfectly safe doing so.”

“The key thing to understand about this disease is these protocols work,” Obama stressed. “We know that because they’ve been used for decades now.”

According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 98 percent of the public have heard or read about the global Ebola outbreak – a level of public awareness only matched recently by the beheading of journalist James Foley by Islamic State militants. While the spread of Ebola to Texas-based medical workers may not, as federal officials insist, constitute a broader risk to American public health, it is clear that the public is deeply concerned that it eventually might.